The year was 1962, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway between 39th and 40th street was an amazing place. From its opening in 1883, the Met has always been regarded as one of the world’s leading opera companies.
And this overwhelming, historic building was also home to The Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School, directed by the great Antony Tudor who teamed with Margaret Craske, a “Cecchetti pioneer.” This is where I spent my days, after school and on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, a world very much apart from my Brooklyn home. Not only was I there for class, but I was also in residence for performances on many evenings and matinees as a “super” in operas including La Giaconda, Faust, L’Elisir d’Amore and Parsifal.
The world of the old Met, which disappeared in 1966 with the opening of the “new” Met at Lincoln Center, is just a memory, but is very dear to me. So here’s a peek at that behind the scenes world from the eyes of a little girl in ballet shoes:
Dancers, stars, chorus, staff, all entered the building from a tiny stage door on West 40th street. Outside the door was a fruit stand, owned by an old man who sold the most enormous and delicious oranges and grapefruits. I used to call him the grapefruit man. We’d buy one to bring in, peeling it the dressing room and eating the grapefruit sections before class.
You would enter through the stage door into an old and tiny reception room, with a guard sitting at a desk and the opera stars dressing rooms only about four steps from the entrance. Before performances you could hear them in their dressing rooms, vocalizing while piles of floral bouquets were delivered and piled high on the floor next to the guard, waiting to be presented at curtain calls.
Ahead of you was a big iron door, the “stage door” itself – literally 10 steps from the front entrance. Things were tight – so tight, that at intermission the stage hands would drag the scenery onto 39th street, even along Broadway, because there was no room to place the scenery in the house between acts. And to the back left of the entrance hall was the elevator – a tiny lift, with an elevator man and a chain door he would pull open and closed. Two memories of that elevator – one, it would bring you to the glorious ballet classes upstairs, and two, it was the elevator that brought the chorus down to the performances – and I would be with them in that elevator, with their vocalizing, joking, faces covered in pancake makeup, all of us wearing full costumes and period hair – what a scene it was!
The old Met was so tight on space that the children in the operas used a “dressing room” that was really a costume storage closet, with Met Opera ballet dancers in their cramped dressing room across the way. You’d squeeze in to the closet for makeup, have a dresser, and then have your costumedescort you down that elevator with other members of the chorus. I remember my first peek at the professional dancers – how immodest they were, parading around naked, and squealing when they heard the ballet “boys” were coming up for a party after the Christmas Eve performance. I wished I could have stayed for that party.
The kids in all performances were under the supervision of a lady named “Spyri” – everyone loved Spyri, especially the guys. I always remember hearing Spyri was married to a stagehand, and everyone would stare at her – she always wore a buttoned down shirt, unbuttoned really, with her big breasts popping out of the top. She was a legend. I ran into Ernesta Corvino recently, and even then, we were amazed and laughing at how well we remembered Spyri! (Ernesta’s father was Ballet Master at the Met Opera Ballet Co.)
Some particularly memorable moments of my stage time at The Met include the night Nicolai Gedda, the famous opera star, was peeling an apple as part of his role as Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore” and while singing badly cut his hand and was bleeding all over his costume and floor. He held his hand behind his back and continued singing while everyone in the wings were waving handkerchiefs and bandages for him – if only he could get off stage, even for a moment! During a small pause he did get off to the wings, wrapped his hand in a cloth, and flew back on the stage to continue on with the scene. No one in the audience was the wiser.
Or the time there was a scare, a big scare, that a stagehand came down with meningitis, and according to doctors we were all exposed! My mother was terrified, didn’t want me to go back, but I did and thankfully no one caught it.
And who can forget the time Nathaniel Merrill, the stage director of “L’Elisir,” singled me out at the dress rehearsal, with a stage full of opera stars, chorus and extras in place, to say, “Who did your makeup? Why aren’t you wearing lipstick?” I told him the makeup lady said, “little girls don’t wear lipstick” and the 100+ people on stage, including the great soprano Mirella Freni, started laughing out loud! Then Mr. Merrill said, “Well you tell her from me that you have to wear lipstick!”
Do you know to this day I never walk out the door without it?